Peggy A. Whitson (Ph.D.) was born in Mount Ayr, Iowa on February 9, 1960. She is a NASA biochemist and astronaut and holds records for the most time spent in space by any American (more than 534 days), the most spacewalks of any woman astronaut (9 career spacewalks), the oldest woman to travel into space (at the age of 56) and the oldest woman spacewalker (at the age of 57). She is also the first woman astronaut to command the International Space Station twice (2008 and 2017) and the first woman to serve as Chief Astronaut of the NASA Office (2009). Whitson is currently the commander of Expedition 51 and is expected to return to Earth in September 2017.
Early Life and Education
Whitson was born in southwestern Iowa in the small rural town of Mount Ayr on February 9, 1960 and grew up on a farm in the nearby tiny town of Beaconsfield, Iowa with her parents Keith and Beth Whitson and older sister, Kathy. An ambitious young person, she was inspired to become an astronaut at the age of 9 while watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Her goals were further solidified when Sally Ride became the first woman American astronaut just as Whitson graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School in 1978.
Whitson went to nearby Iowa Wesleyan College where she was on the President's Honor Roll and received a Bachelor of Science in Biology/Chemistry in 1981, graduating summa cum laude. Afterwards, she obtained a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Rice University in 1985 and continued as a Robert A. Welch Post-doctoral Fellow at Rice until October 1986. Whitson met her husband, Clarence Sams, while they were both pursuing their doctorates at Rice University. They married on May 6, 1989. Sams, a biochemist, is currently the manager of the Cell and Molecular Research Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA Space Missions
In 1986, Whitson became a National Research Council Resident Research Associate at the NASA Johnson Space Center and worked in various biochemistry and medical science research positions for the next decade. In April 1996, Whitson was selected as an Astronaut Candidate. After completing years of rigorous space-flight training, Whitson joined the Expedition 5 crew and traveled into space for the first time on June 5, 2002 aboard the shuttle Endeavour as a flight engineer and spent 184 days in space conducting over 20 experiments in microgravity and human life sciences. In June 2003, Whitson lived and worked underwater for two weeks as the commander of the NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) 5 mission aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory.
Breaking Records in Space
On October 10, 2007, Whitson made a second trip into space aboard spacecraft Soyuz-TMA on Expedition 16 and became the very first woman commander to lead any space exploration. During this 192-day mission, she surpassed Sunita Williams and became the woman with the most spacewalks (her 8th spacewalk). In 2009, Whitson became the first woman to serve as Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office. On November 17, 2016 as the commander of Expedition 51 on her third long-duration space flight, she became the oldest woman to travel into space (at the age of 56) and in March 2017, she became the oldest woman spacewalker (at the age of 57). During this mission, on April 24, 2017, Whitson set a new record of the longest time ever spent in space by any NASA astronaut, surpassing astronaut Jeff Williams’ previous record of 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes and on May 12, 2017, she completed the 200th NASA spacewalk (her 9th spacewalk), breaking the previous record (her own) of the most spacewalks by any woman. She is also the first woman astronaut to command the International Space Station twice (2008 and 2017). Whitson spoke about her record-breaking achievements in an interview with CNN:
"I don't think about the records themselves too much, but when I do think about them, it makes me think about all the people that make it possible," she said. "There are an incredible amount of people at NASA who make it possible."
Awards, Achievements, and Honors
Whitson has received numerous awards from NASA including the NASA Sustained Superior Performance Award (1990), the NASA Space Act Award for Patent Application (1994), the NASA Certificate of Commendation (1994), the NASA Tech Brief Award (1995), two NASA Space Act Board Awards (1995, 1998), the NASA Silver Snoopy Award (1995), three NASA Exceptional Service Medals (1995, 2003, 2006), the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (2006) and two NASA Space Flight Medals (2002, 2008). She was a member of the Astronaut Selection Board in 2004 and served as the chair in 2009.
Outside of NASA, she has received the American Astronautical Society Randolph Lovelace II Award (1995), the Group Achievement Award for Shuttle-Mir Program (1996), the Distinguished Alumni Award from Iowa Wesleyan College (2002), the Texas Women on the Move Award (2010), the Distinguished Alumni Award from Rice University (2010), the First Lady of Iowa Award presented by the Iowa High School Girls’ Athletic Union (2010), and she was inducted into the Iowa Transportation Museum as a Hero of Valor (2009). In 2011, Whitson received the BioHouston Women in Science Award, the Russian Medal of Merit for Space, she was inducted into Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, and she was named one of Houston’s 50 Most Influential Women. She also holds two patents involving innovative methods of collection, storage, and analysis of blood and other bodily fluids (1997, 1998).
A Role Model and Trailblazer
Whitson’s numerous accolades and record-breaking accomplishments make her a true role model. In fact, the Lion’s Club at her own elementary school, Mount Ayr Elementary, designated their Science Lab “The Peggy Whitson Science Center” in her honor in 2008. In a phone call to her on the day she broke the record for the most consecutive days in space, President Donald Trump stated:
"Peggy is a phenomenal role model for young women, and all Americans, who are exploring or participating in STEM education programs and careers. As I have said many times before, only by enlisting the full potential of women in our society will we be truly able to make America great again. When I signed the INSPIRE Women Act in February, I did so to ensure more women have access to STEM education and careers, and to ensure America continues to benefit from the contributions of trailblazers like Peggy."
In April 2017, Whitson’s space mission was extended and she is now expected to return to Earth in September 2017. In the upcoming months, Whitson and her crew will complete numerous experiments including an antibody investigation designed to help increase the effectiveness of cancer treatment chemotherapy drugs, an advanced plant habitat designed to study plant physiology and food growth in space, and an investigation of magnetized cells and tools designed to improve the reproducibility of experiments. Upon her return, Whitson can enjoy participating in her earth-bound hobbies which include weightlifting, biking, basketball and water skiing.
(Photo, top left: Courtesy NASA)
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